Ukrainians celebrate EU candidate status which is more than ‘a symbolic gesture’

Balkan leaders in Brussels frustrated by ongoing wait for accession talks

European leaders granted Ukraine the status of a candidate member state on Thursday in a historic decision that opens the door to EU membership for the war-torn country.

The move was hailed as an important political statement but it meant so much more to Ukrainians who have long held hopes of a better future in the union.

“The candidate status is not just a symbolic gesture for us,” said Yana Humen (26), who had gathered with her compatriots draped in the EU and Ukrainian flags to chant “Ukraine is Europe” outside the building where the leaders met to make the decision in Brussels on Thursday. “We really believe Ukraine deserves this. Ukrainians are the only people who have died and are still dying for the European values, for their dreams of being part of the EU.”

A young man recalled Martin Luther King’s famous speech as he told the crowd “I also have a dream. I have a dream that my kids will be in the euro. I have a dream that Ukraine will be part of the European Union,” he said. “Please make our dreams come true.”

Anna Fadieieva (43), a refugee from Ukraine who is a writer and interpreter, said that throughout the centuries Ukraine had always been at the heart of European politics and economics despite Russian attempts to impose its dominance and an alternative view of history since Soviet times. “It’s a matter of what world our children will have tomorrow,” she said, gripping a Ukrainian flag.

The European Commission recommended the move after overseeing an accelerated process of evaluation that was prioritised by the Kyiv government even as it fought the war.

The assessment found the country had made democratic strides despite Russian encroachment since the Maidan uprising of 2014, when then-president Viktor Yanukovich broke with plans to sign trade deal with the EU in favour of closer ties with Russia, sparking a popular revolt that led to his flight from power.

The leaders also approved candidate status for Moldova, Ukraine’s neighbour of 2.6 million. One of the poorest countries in Europe, it elected a pro-EU government last year which has cultivated strong western ties as it struggles to cope with half a million Ukrainian refugees amid fears that Russia has designs on its breakaway province of Transnistria.

Georgia fell short of receiving candidate status as the EU asked it to meet additional criteria, disappointing the tens of thousands who marched in Tbilisi this week to appeal for progress on membership, holding signs reading “We are Europe”.

Many Georgians bearing their white and red national flags joined the Ukrainian crowd outside the council meeting. “Even if we have a pro-Russian government the Georgian people really want to be part of Europe,” said Georgian citizen Monica Tigishvili (26), who had travelled from Antwerp, Belgium, to attend the demonstration. Europe is stability. Europe is safe, and Europe is everything for us.”

A meeting with the six western Balkan countries on the morning of the summit underscored how long and arduous the path to completing membership can be even after candidate status is granted, as frustrations spilled into the open.

“North Macedonia is a candidate since 17 years if I have not lost count. Albania since eight,” Albanian prime minister Edi Rama told journalists as he arrived to find his country would be denied the start of accession talks once again as a single member state, Bulgaria, wielded its veto.

“So, welcome to Ukraine. It’s good to give candidate status. But I hope the Ukrainian people will not make many illusions about it,” he said.

Tough talk is expected when the leaders – which for this session will include the Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe wearing his president of the Eurogroup hat – on Friday meet ECB president Christine Lagarde to discuss the impact of inflation in EU economies.

But on Thursday night, the news was all about Ukraine. “I feel that it’s one step closer to win this war,” said Ms Fadieieva. “Every step, every movement, every small action in this direction is very important. So that’s why I’m here today.”